Midterm elections: Why environmental groups are backing Republicans

Hoping to make climate change a bipartisan issue, environmental groups are endorsing Republicans and moderate Democrats in the midterm elections. The strategy is a pragmatic shift for green groups, who have more money and clout in this election than ever before.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine is followed by reporters as she leaves a meeting of Senate Republicans regarding the government shutdown and debt ceiling last year. Sen. Collins is one of the top moderate GOP deal makers – a reason environmental groups have warmed to her.

She’s as green as they come.

Shenna Bellows, the Democrat running for Senate in Maine, proudly touts her environmental credentials. She rails against emissions-intensive oil sands from Canada, would tighten EPA regulations on greenhouse gases, and wants more investment in renewable energy.

So why isn’t the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) – a big-name, big-money green group – endorsing Ms. Bellows?

In short, it’s pragmatism. LCV instead endorsed Sen. Susan Collins, her Republican opponent, who is favored to win come November. Despite the fact that LCV has given Collins a D-level rating on green issues, Collins is among the most pro-environment in the GOP. She’s also a key dealmaker in an increasingly fractured Congress – and on climate change, environmentalists are realizing, it will be hard to succeed without reaching across the aisle.

“Senator Susan Collins is committed to finding bipartisan solutions that will safeguard our environment and combat climate change while promoting clean energy,” LCV Action Fund president Gene Karpinski said in a statement announcing the endorsement this summer.

And it’s not just Sen. Collins. Environmental groups are opening their arms to some other unlikely candidates ahead of November’s midterm elections. From pro-Keystone Democrats in the South to moderate Republicans in the Northeast and Midwest, environmental organizations have warmed to moderate politicians they may have overlooked in past cycles.

With more money, resources, and clout than ever before, greens are trying to broaden their sphere of influence, aiming to turn climate change and environmentalism into non-partisan issues in coming elections.

Critics lambast the green movement for moving away from principle. But other observers applaud the pragmatism, and green groups insist it’s necessary for a compromise-driven approach to action on climate change.

“If we’re going to change the politics of environmental issues, and particularly climate change, we need both parties,” says Tony Kreindler, senior director for communications at Environmental Defense Action Fund, the political action arm of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an environmental group that supports some environmentally-friendly Republicans.

Cash to burn

The shift can be partly attributed to green groups’ deeper pockets in this year’s midterm elections. The usual players – the League of Conservation Voters, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club – are increasingly embracing political action committees and private donor networks to match those in the Republicans’ camp. That’s helping green groups move beyond written endorsements to become heavy-hitters in the campaign spending department.

One new group alone, NextGen Climate, is ready to spend $100 million to transform climate change into a major campaign issue. NextGen is billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s answer to the Koch brothers, billionaire industrialists who have spent millions aiding conservative candidates country-wide.

Though NextGen has shied away from GOP candidates, groups like the Environmental Defense Fund are backing moderate Republicans with good environmental records.

Look no further than New York’s 19th Congressional District, where a liberal Democrat is facing off against a moderate Republican incumbent. Democrat Sean Eldridge trumpets environmental protection as a key platform. Incumbent Rep. Chris Gibson (R) has stayed relatively low-profile on the issue, and LCV gives mixed reviews to Gibson’s voting record.

Nonetheless, the Environmental Defense Action Fund is dropping $250,000 to support Republican Congressman Gibson.

“If you look at the numbers in Congress, the math is inescapable: We still need Republican support to get climate legislation off the House floor,” Mr. Kreindler says in a telephone interview, explaining EDF’s commitment to electing pro-environment Republicans.

Backing Congressman Gibson is only one piece of EDF’s foray into Republican politics this election cycle. The group has also gotten involved in several state-level legislative races in Kansas, supporting Republicans who defended a renewable electricity production mandate in the state.

Green groups acknowledge that helping elect Republicans and moderate Democrats won’t yield sweeping climate and environmental changes overnight. Instead, they view it as an investment that will keep climate change on the radar for politicians in both parties.

And some observers think it may be a wise investment.

"It’s important to be pragmatic," says Meghan McGuinness, associate director for energy and the environment at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington. "Getting things done will require bipartisanship, particularly in the Senate, and both sides will need to compromise."

Moving to the middle

It’s not just Republicans who are benefitting from big green’s largesse. Moderate Democrats from Michelle Nunn in Georgia to Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado are raking in cash and endorsements from green groups that are willing to tolerate the pro-fossil-fuel and pro-Keystone XL stances that the groups otherwise oppose.

Even Tom Steyer of NextGen Climate is pumping millions into campaigns for Democrats who don’t always toe the line on environmental causes.

Part of the reason greens are so willing to dump money into races with moderate Democrats is defensive. Groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters view a Democratic-controlled Senate as a “firewall” to prevent a GOP-led House from dismantling EPA regulations and eviscerating President Obama’s coal plant emissions reductions targets.

To keep the Senate in Democrats’ hands, green groups have gravitated toward candidates they don’t always agree with on key environmental issues. For example, several weeks ago the League of Conservation Voters endorsed Michelle Nunn, the Democrat running for Georgia’s open Senate seat.

“She knows we have a moral obligation to act on climate change, and she's been clear she supports growing the clean energy economy. That's why we're happy to be supporting to her,” Sara Chieffo, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, told the Huffington Post.

But just a week before that endorsement, Ms. Nunn released an ad criticizing other Democrats for their position on one of green groups’ pet issues: blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Alberta oil sands from Canada to US Gulf Coast refineries.

"Too many Democrats play politics by dragging their feet on the Keystone pipeline," Nunn says in the 30 second ad.

Sierra Club backs pro-Keystone candidates like Sen. Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina – herself facing a bruising re-election bid – demonstrating that green groups are willing to compromise. Keystone support isn’t a dealbreaker for Tom Steyer either, as he told C-SPAN in an interview earlier this year. “We’re going to take a holistic view, and try and make sure that the people we support are going to be doing the right thing down the road,” Steyer said.

That’s not to say Keystone XL doesn’t figure into green juggernauts’ endorsement strategies, though. In their recent endorsement for South Dakota Senate Candidate Rick Weiland, for instance, LCV pointed to his anti-Keystone stance as a reason for support.

And the Sierra Club, too, factors Keystone XL in its decision to support candidates.

“When we consider supporting candidates, we look at their record as a whole from where they stand on protecting our lands and wildlife to stopping Keystone XL to advancing clean energy,” Melissa Williams, the Sierra Club’s national political director, said in a statement earlier this year.

As Democrats like Nunn try to strike moderate positions on energy and the environment, Republicans seem to be easing their way to the center as well – particularly on climate change. They may be doing it with an eye to the presidential election in 2016, when Republicans will compete with Democrats on the national stage for the support of independent voters who may favor clean energy and climate policies.

“I doubt, even a year from now, whether major political candidates will consider it viable to deny the existence of climate change,” Todd Stern, the United States envoy on climate change, told a group of students at Yale Law School last week.

Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have all dodged questions about humans’ involvement in climate change, suggesting a growing reluctance to outright reject global warming.

But even if all politicians accept the scientific consensus around climate change, would that lead to policy mitigating climate change or stemming increases in warming carbon emissions?

It’s possible, says Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican governor of New Jersey and an EPA administrator under President George W. Bush. But for now, Ms. Whitman says, the politics are just too polarized – and that’s what green groups say they are hoping to change.

“It’s become a zero-sum game – you’re either for or against. It’s been hard to overcome that,” Whitman says.

Still, many Republicans are skeptical that climate change deserves the outsize attention President Obama has given it.

“While America faces immediate challenges and threats, President Obama remains fixated on pushing an extreme climate agenda,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming in a statement released to the Monitor in late September.

Following public opinion

If green groups can manage to push politicians to be greener, it might make Congress look more like the electorate, according to Stanford University professor Jon Krosnick, who studies public opinion on climate change.

“Sometimes you hear the argument that it would be impossible for a Republican to win a primary taking a green position on climate, because Republican activist voters are skeptical. But that’s simply not true,” says Mr. Krosnick. On climate change, he adds, “There’s a mismatch between what legislators do and what constituents want.”

About 18 percent of Americans are passionate "issue voters" on climate change, according to Krosnick’s research. In other words, 18 percent of Americans turn out at the polls because of the issue. And of those climate enthusiasts, about 85 percent hold a green view, while about 15 percent are skeptical of climate change.

On most issues – think gun control, abortion rights, etc. – the split is more even; half of voters for, half of voters against. That means politicians stand to gain more by staking out a pro-green stance, Krosnick says.

“This is a winning argument for Democrats and Republicans,” Krosnick says in a telephone interview, noting that climate change can motivate voters to turn out at the polls. “The real lever here is turnout, so this is a perfect place for the green groups to make a difference.”

But for Republicans it may not be that simple.

“I think the politics are still that members don’t feel they can come out and say anything,” Kimberly Dean, senior advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center Advocacy Network, told the Monitor in September. “The Republican party is still dealing with some of the further-right aspects of the party within election cycles.”

Coal and oil Democrats

Green groups still draw the line on who they’re willing to support, and not all Democrats make the cut.

For example, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana has little support from green groups. As Chair of the Senate Energy Committee Senator Landrieu has pushed for Keystone XL pipeline approval and for pro-oil and gas policies that would make environmentalists shudder.

Democrats locked in tight races in Kentucky and West Virginia could even be harmed if green groups made too much of a splash. In those states, staunch pro-coal, anti-EPA platforms are must-haves on the campaign trail – for Democrats and Republicans alike.

As the national Democratic party increasingly moves toward climate change as a marquee issue, Democrats in energy states are caught in the middle.

Several Democratic candidates in this November’s elections face tough match-ups in states where coal, natural gas, and oil are king. To win votes and fill campaign coffers, candidates like Sen. Landrieu, Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky, and Natalie Tennant of West Virginia are distancing themselves from the national party.


“Where do they think their electricity comes from?” asks Ms. Tennant in the first television ad of her bid for West Virginia’s open Senate seat. A picture of the White House flashes across the screen. “You and I know it’s our hard working West Virginia coal miners that power America.”

Tennant, running in a state where coal is king – where politicians must crusade against “the war on coal” – is careful to draw a line between herself and Obama on energy.

“I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message,” she says in the ad, as she flips a switch to shut off electricity to the executive mansion.

That leaves pro-environment groups like the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and NextGen Climate in a bind. Do they stay out of the race altogether, since neither candidate has staked out pro-environment positions?

So far, caution appears to be the choice – money-wise, green groups have steered clear of pro-coal, pro-oil Democrats.

If the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund are any indication, green groups would just as soon align themselves with moderate Republicans – candidates who support coal and oil, but are at least amenable to policies that promote renewables, efficiency, and climate change adaptation.

“The goal in 2014 is to prove our good intentions,” Environmental Defense Action Fund's Kreindler says. “We’re cognizant that it’s going to take a couple election cycles to change the politics.”

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